Introducing METAVASARELY and An Empty Room, A Two-Part Digital Work by Casey Rea, Joel Ferree, Unframed LACMA [13/2/2023]Marilena Pateraki
Taking as a base any one of my programmations, we are now able to recreate the work and a countless number of other compositions the machine proposes. In this way, the limitations due to the artist’s method of working in a studio would be overcome.
—from Victor Vasarely’s proposal to LACMA’s Art & Technology Program (1967–71)
In conjunction with Coded: Art Enters the Computer Age, 1952–1982, LACMA’s Art + Technology Lab presents Casey Reas: METAVASARELY and An Empty Room. The project is a simulation and homage to Victor Vasarely’s unrealized proposal for LACMA’s original Art & Technology Program (1967–71), which defined a machine composed of lights arranged in a grid that would generate millions of different visual patterns related to his paintings. The proposal reflected the artist’s interest in cybernetics and permutation and, thanks to Reas, is enjoying a second life in our digital age. We sat down with Reas to learn more.
In the late 1960s, IBM estimated that it would cost $2 million to create the machine Vasarely envisioned. What was it like to evolve the concept and manifest it in a digital space?
My first instinct was to build the machine. The electronics needed to produce Vasarely’s machine have advanced so much since then. But, thinking more, the idea of simulating it in software felt more flexible and exciting. I’m glad that I made this decision because I think the machine Vasarely imagined at that time was far less interesting than what he was doing with more traditional materials. In his painting practice he developed his diverse “plastic alphabet” of forms and colors that he combined in endless variations. When he created a painting with this alphabet, the way he combined the forms was complex. In contrast, the machine specified in the Art & Technology proposal is limited to only circles of light; it didn’t have the same flexibility. In re-imagining the machine in software now, I can explore his full visual palette while still keeping to the core idea of Vasarely’s Art & Technology machine proposal.
In the 1960s, Vasarely was working on this Planetary Folklore and Permutations and Algorithms series of works. Like the proposal he created for LACMA, these artworks included a regular square grid. (His iconic artworks that warp the grid came later.) In each grid element, he would place one or more shapes (e.g. a circle or square) and each shape would have a different color from a custom palette defined for each artwork. I spent months attempting to create a software system that could produce a wide range of images that felt like they might have been produced by Vasarely. I was able to sketch out “the big picture” but looking at his work with even more detail, nearly all the artworks contain exceptions to the rules he defines within them. Although they appear so rational and structured, they have idiosyncratic details that are completely essential. So, I switched directions and created what you see now. I found it was far more interesting to make an instrument that allowed me to perform, rather than automate, Vasarely’s idea.